WELCOME HOME: A Day in the Life of a San Francisco Bay Area Apartment Hunter
"The worker does not beg; the bourgeoisie begs. To demand is also to beg. To serve." –Charles Péguy
On an uncharacteristically overcast Oakland morning, I wake up not knowing if it's day or night in my $1,000/month Airbnb shack—what looks like a garage, or a workshed, pieced together with at least six different types of plywood, with no windows or heat, and a broken refrigerator—sneak outside and climb the stairs to the building next door to use the bathroom, and then run to drop off my application to reapply for the downtown housing project where I lived the previous year.
I took the privileged and shaky decision to travel without clear direction for the better part of 2015, despite having to do it on very little money, Couchsurfing and relying on the kindness of strangers, and now hope I will in fact have a home to return to.
"How have things been?" I ask my old landlord.
"Quiet," he says.
This is the building where I once found a smiley face drawn in blood on my front door. Climbed down a seven-floor fire escape when my neighbor fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand. Awoke to nonstop screaming from a naked woman in the middle of the street, who was surrounded by countless fire trucks and police.
"Really?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says. "We evicted a lot of people."
Protestors outside old Sears building in downtown Oakland, Nov. 2015
Indeed, according to the posters I see on my street, Oakland evicts over 1,000 tenants per month. And a large part of Oakland's displacement the last few years has been race-based. In a loud city full of sirens, screams, and blasting music, noise complaints against drum circles seem suspect and racially targeted to some. Especially considering that I once dialed 911 in the above-mentioned building, which at the time housed mostly black renters, to report a domestic violence incident at the end of the hall. The police never showed up.
Then it's off to telecommute at a nearby cafe--I am employed in a job that requires a college degree, but because I work remotely, my San Francisco employer outsources to other American towns and is thus legally able to pay me less than the San Francisco minimum wage as a base hourly pay, with an added speed-based commission that varies from nonexistent to as insultingly small as my current housing dimensions. Certain months of the year, I would have to fudge the numbers because I don't make enough to qualify for government housing, even with a full-time job.
At Starbucks, I overhear a conversation about how robots are replacing people for jobs everywhere--"You'll go to McDonald's and robots are gonna be taking your order." My work is relentless today, as is the robot software that assigns it to me in an endless assembly line queue, so I don't find time to pee for the next few hours. When I do, I head back toward what currently passes for home, and I stumble upon a protest near the 19th street BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, two stops from where in 2009 Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old father was shot and killed by BART cop Johannes Mehserle, then acquitted. The protesters who often gather at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland unofficially renamed the area Oscar Grant Plaza in his honor.
While I can't personally relate to the racism that plays a part in the housing crisis, I deeply understand the feeling of not belonging. From the privileged, conservative, and closed-minded suburb of an economically depressed and crumbling rust-belt city where I grew up, I like many others across the nation fled to the Bay area for its progressive culture of unapologetic weirdness and its counterpart of acceptance, a remnant of '60s hippy culture, a culture that is now being slowly stripped away, due to the combined effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the tech boom and its engineers' high salaries, and a lack of tenant protection from local governments.
Apparently the weird people that gave the Bay its flavor...the artists, the Burners, are some of those who can no longer afford to stay here. The streets of Oakland have seen a migration from San Francisco of brightly colored, creatively dressed people for whom the title "hipster" doesn't seem quite right. Downtown Oakland is beginning to look the way SF's Mission district did a decade ago, with burgeoning artistic expression and a small town neighborhood feel. But the Mission only got that way from slowly pushing Latino communities farther out. And today the Mission is instead overrun with a more bourgeois sort of commerce, hipster barber shops and chocolateries.
Students are another group that suffers from a housing shortage. In the Sunset district of San Francisco, home to more than a few SF State students, for years I've seen listings with requirements such as "No overnight guests," "No cooking," "No parties," and "No pets." The more power landlords have and the more desperate their applicants, the more absurd their requests seem to get.
Ninety miles south of the city in the small town of Santa Cruz, housing is so short that some University of California students sleep in their cars or on friends' floors while they continue to search. A bed in a shared room (a "double," as opposed to a "single" or unshared room) can go for as much as 700. I spent a large part of 2015 in Santa Cruz, where I once went to school, and in my housing search I'm faced with one landlord who rents out only the bottom floor of her home. Only on my way out do I ask about the kitchen.
"That's upstairs," she says.
"Can I go up there?" I ask.
I then call about a room in downtown SC, and I'm asked what questions I have.
"Can I see it?" I say, excited just to get someone on the phone for a place that doesn't look awful.
"Well let me ask you this—do you love dogs?"
"Um, I had a dog when I was a kid..."
"Cause you know, we had a guy here once, who only tolerated dogs, and our dog, he can feel that."
I quickly turned to AirBnb during my year without a home, as I was a traveler, experiencing foreign culture with locals, which is the proposed idea behind the site. But as I made my way back to California, it became more of an emergency housing solution. I had week-long sojourn on a downtown Oakland couch for what would be $850 per month. The woman renting to me also rented out her single bedroom while she slept in the kitchen. She refused to give keys to any tenants, so that I was required to call her any time I wished to go in or out.
A site like AirBnb, particularly in a housing crisis like the Bay’s, calls into question what is a "real" home—and how much "legal" really matters—when regular people are renting out garages, closets, couches, pantries, cars, trucks, vans, tents, and even just empty land.
How many Bay area residents have felt like Anne Frank hiding out during census time?
And even the "normal" stuff listed on Craigslist can at times be dubious, such as this ad for a woman to share a man's bed for $400 a month in one of the worst parts of Oakland, what in my home city of Cleveland could get you a one-bedroom in Lakewood or Shaker Square:
$400 / 600ft2 - seeking female only for roomate [sic] (oakland east) hello my name is Joshua. I am recently divorced and need help with bills. I have the master bedroom with private bathroom. direct access to kitchen and whole house. looking for a female only roommate. Sorry only one bed and not about to share it with a dude. don't worry not perverted or anything. safe and sane. I work 5-6days a week. only deposit is first months rent so 400$. located close to Fruitvale bart. safe area. laundry Matt close by shopping close. great central location. please be single. no drama etc... I might be open to a relationship later on if things click if not no worries can still be friends etc... not looking to get laid. just need help with the bills since the divorce. feel free to contact me txt only 510-379-XXXX.
My Airbnb "bedroom"
So where does it end? And how? The slogans on the posters say "Demand tenant rights," but if it were so easy, would it really be a housing crisis?
In the future, will everyone have housing for 15 minutes?
Too often I've felt it was all my fault. I began my search for low-income housing when I was laid off in 2013 and unemployment insurance was my income. This was abruptly cut without warning by the federal government in December of that year by a Republican vote, which led me to take the first thing that paid anything as soon as I could. Sure, it was me who decided to take a break and volunteer (largely to help my career) after being laid off, and focus on my novel and other creative pursuits, then to travel with the next job I had. Privileged choices, but while I may have held onto my social capital, the liquid capital hasn't always followed. Some struggle due to their social disadvantages, racism, sexism, drug addiction, mental illness, or entrenched poverty, and some struggle in spite of opportunities they've had. America wants you to think it's your fault. But when a thousand people a month are told they no longer have a home because they're too "poor" to afford a 60% rent increase? When you can't find a new home because you want to keep your dog? Or don't love dogs enough?
Indigenous protesters at above-mentioned housing protest, downtown Oakland Nov. 2015
The next morning, I'm caught by the landlord looking for any empty shower stall in the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) building next door (the one that has the bathroom in it).
"I'm renting downstairs," I tell her, standing awkwardly down the hall from her with a towel in one hand and my keys in the other, which could in theory be taken from me at any moment.
"Really?" she asks. "AirBnb? He said he was gonna stop doing that."
"I had a feeling he wasn't allowed to," I say.
"How long are you staying?"
"Till the end of the week." I was considering adding more days, but this means now I have four days to find something else.
"And when is that?"
"Saturday," I say, though it's more like I'm asking permission, though I've already paid for the place.
As I step into a cold shower, I wonder if my host will be the next evicted Oakland tenant.